1. Introduction and Defining the Field of Computer Ethics

March 7, 2022 lectured and written by Dr. Merve Ayyüce KIZRAK

Computer ethics is a branch of ethics that seems to be new, but not so new, that grows and changes rapidly as computer technology grows and develops.

The term "computer ethics" is open to both broad and narrow interpretations.

On the one hand, for example, computer ethics can be understood very narrowly as attempts by professional philosophers to apply traditional ethical theories such as utilitarianism, Kantianism, or virtue ethics to issues related to the use of computer technology.

On the other hand, it is possible to interpret computer ethics very broadly to include professional practice standards, codes of conduct, aspects of computer law, public policy, corporate ethics, and computer psychology – even specific topics in sociology. In the industrialized countries of the world, the "information revolution" has dramatically changed many aspects of life - banking and commerce, work and employment, medical care, national defense, transportation, and entertainment. As a result, information technology has begun to affect community life, family life, human relations, education, freedom, democracy, etc. (both in a good and bad way). In its broadest sense, computer ethics can be understood as a branch of applied ethics that studies and analyzes such social and ethical implications of information technology.

In recent years, although computer ethics has spread to a wide area under the concept of information technologies, it is clustered around data-hungry technologies that have already changed and continue to change our lives, such as cyber security, artificial intelligence, robotics, and the internet of things. Data ethics is another important topic that needs to be addressed under this topic. With all these technologies finding a response in our lives, there are also many discussions based on living and cooperating with them. Experts raise these issues through university courses (just as in this course), conferences, workshops, professional organizations, curriculum materials, books, articles, journals, and research centers. In the age of worldwide high-speed connectivity, we see computer ethics rapidly transforming into "global information ethics."

Within the scope of this course, I will not cover many topics alone, as an artificial intelligence expert. I aim to enrich the course with many guests such as engineers, philosophers, political scientists, lawyers, data scientists, international relations experts, who work in different sectors and are experts in the field. By updating this set of notes each week, I want to ultimately turn the lecture into a permanent online corpus so that more people have a basis to consider the impact of next-generation technologies from an ethical perspective at all levels (personal, environmental, organizational, and societal, etc.). In addition, although the language of the course is English, I intend to create a source in our mother tongue by preparing the Turkish translation of the content simultaneously.

Concepts of Computer Ethics

This is why there was no discipline known as "computer ethics" from the 1940s to the 1960s. However, starting with Walter Maner in the 1970s, active thinkers in computer ethics began to define computer ethics as a field of study. Let's summarize these definitions and try to understand our starting point.

When Walter Maner decided to use the term "computer ethics" in the mid-70s, he defined the field as one that studies "ethical problems aggravated, transformed, or created by computer technology." He said some old ethical issues have been exacerbated by computers, while others are entirely new due to information technology. By analogy with the more advanced field of medical ethics, Maner draws upon the applications of traditional ethical theories used by philosophers of "applied ethics"—especially analyzes such as the training of British philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, or the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who used the rationalists' utilitarian ethics. focused.

Deborah Johnson, in her book Computer Ethics, defined the field as one that studies the way computers "raise new versions of standard moral problems and moral dilemmas, exacerbate old problems, and force us to apply mundane moral norms." Like Maner before him, Johnson proposed an "applied ethics" approach of using procedures and concepts from utilitarianism and Kantianism. However, unlike Maner, she did not believe that computers created entirely new moral problems. Instead, she thought, computers were giving "a new twist" to old ethical issues that were already well known.

James Moor's "What is Computer Ethics?" His definition of computer ethics was much broader and more comprehensive than either Maner or Johnson's. It is independent of any particular philosopher's theory; and is compatible with a wide variety of methodological approaches to ethical problem-solving. Over the last decade, Moor's definition has been the most influential. He defined computer ethics as a field dealing with "policy gaps" and "conceptual confusions" regarding the social and ethical use of information technology:

A typical problem in computer ethics arises from the existence of a policy gap in how computer technology should be used. Computers provide us with new capabilities, which in turn give us new options for action. Often, in these situations, there is either no behavior policy or existing policies seem inadequate. The main task of computer ethics is to determine what we should do in such situations, that is, to formulate policies to guide our actions... One of the difficulties is that there is often a conceptual gap with the policy gap. While a problem in computer ethics may seem clear at first, a little reflection reveals conceptual confusion. What is needed in such cases is an analysis that provides a coherent conceptual framework within which to formulate a policy of action.

Moor argues that computer technology is truly revolutionary because it is "logically malleable":

Computers can be shaped logically because they can be malleable and molded to do any activity that can be characterized in terms of linking inputs, outputs, and logical operations... Because logic is ubiquitous, the potential applications of computer technology seem limitless. The computer is the closest thing we have to a universal tool. Indeed, the limits of computers are largely the limits of our own creativity.

According to Moor, the computer revolution takes place in two stages.

  • The first stage was the "technological entry" stage, where computer technology was developed and refined. This has already happened in America in the first forty years after the Second World War.

  • The second stage that the industrialized world has just entered is the stage of "technological penetration", where technology is integrated into daily human activities and social institutions, changing the meaning of basic concepts such as "money", "education", "work" and "fair elections".

The way Moor describes the field of computer ethics is very powerful and thought-provoking. It is broad enough to be compatible with a wide variety of philosophical theories and methodologies and is based on a perceptual understanding of how technological revolutions progress. It is currently regarded as the best available description of the field.

However, there is another way of understanding computer ethics that is also very useful and compatible with a wide variety of theories and approaches. This "the other way" was the approach Wiener took in his 1950 book The Human Use of Human Beings, and Moor's "What is Computer Ethics?" also briefly discussed.

According to this alternative explanation, computer ethics is that information technology is related to health, wealth, opportunity, freedom, democracy, knowledge, privacy, security, self-actualization, etc. defines and analyzes the effects on human values such as This broad view of computer ethics covers applied ethics, computer sociology, technology evaluation, computer law, and related fields; uses concepts, theories, and methodologies from these and other related disciplines.

According to this alternative explanation, computer ethics defines and analyzes the effects of information technology on human values such as health, wealth, opportunity, freedom, democracy, knowledge, privacy, security, self-actualization, etc. This broad view of computer ethics covers applied ethics, computer sociology, technology evaluation, computer law, and related fields; uses concepts, theories, and methodologies from these and other related disciplines.

In the 1990s, Donald Gotterbarn became a strong advocate of a different approach to defining the field of computer ethics. In Gotterbarn's view, computer ethics should be viewed as a branch of professional ethics that deals primarily with standards of practice and code of conduct for computer professionals:

Little attention is paid to the field of professional ethics—the values that guide the day-to-day activities of computer professionals in their professional roles. By computer expert, I mean everyone involved in the design and development of computer works... The ethical decisions made during the development of these structures have direct relevance to many of the issues discussed under the broader concept of computer ethics.

Keeping this professional ethical definition of computer ethics in mind, Gotterbarn was involved in a number of related activities, such as co-authoring the third version of the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct and trying to establish licensing standards for software engineers.

Considering that the subject of computer ethics has been on the agenda more than ever in the last two decades, the field seems to have a very important future. However, two important thinkers, Krystyna Gorniak-Kocikowska and Deborah Johnson have recently argued that computer ethics will disappear as a separate branch of ethics. In 1996, Gorniak-Kocikowska predicted that computer ethics, now considered a branch of applied ethics, would eventually evolve into much more. According to his hypothesis, "local" ethical theories, such as the ethical systems of cultures in different parts of the world, will eventually be replaced by global ethics that evolves from today's computer ethics.

The "computer" ethics will then become the "ordinary" ethics of the information age.

They were looking at a future where what we call "computer ethics" is globally important and a vital aspect of everyday life, but the name "computer ethics" may no longer be used. Today we call artificial intelligence ethics, data ethics, but it is obvious that this will normalize over time and we will converge to general and global ethics as our whole lives become a part of technology.


  1. Computer Ethics: Basic Concepts and Historical Overview - Stanford University, Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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